Nine step recipe for good independent game design

Steps IV-VI

By Damon Brown

This series is meant to help beginning game developers (particularly solo) keep in mind the basics of good game design. It is set up differently, however; the nine principles are set up like tips on cooking- a rather unusual, but applicable parallel. This isn’t meant as an end-all, and I certainly have a lot to learn. However, I do have game design experience as a solo developer, so this is meant as a simple guide with solid design principles.

As I mentioned in my other articles, I have had difficulty as a solo game developer changing hats (sound engineer, level designer, lead programmer, artist, etc.), particularly with game programming and game design. For a period of time, I thought game programming and game design were the same thing.

"I programmed the guy to walk across the screen? Great! Now I can make Zelda!" Not quite.

Game programming requires analytical skills, logical creativity and patience. Game design requires psychology- it is a simple as that.

The best way to explain this psychology is to quote Dave Perry, head of Shiny games, describing Shigeru Miyamato, the highly-regarded Nintendo game designer (the Mario series, Zelda, etc.) He said, in Arcade Magazine issue 3, "Miyamato knows what you’re thinking at every moment… When you think you’re being smart, or you do something unexpected, or even go the wrong way, he’s already there with you."

To design well, you have to be the user. You have to get in the player’s head. How many times have you played a game and said "Wouldn’t it be cool if you could…"? That’s how many times game designers have missed an opportunity to expand their game universe. Don’t be that designer. J

Easier said than done. We will never reach perfection, but I hope that my guide with all the other sources out there will help you achieve your personal best. If you have any questions, e-mail me at the address above or visit my webpage above.

Finally, as a warning, I have a dry sense of humor. You’ve been warned…




I. Get Your Ingredients Ahead Of Time

II. Make Sure Your Ingredients Mix Well Together

III. Let It Marinate

IV. If The Flavor Is Good, Let That Flavor Come Through

V. Enjoy Experimenting – If It Goes Bad, Start Over

VI. Too Many Cooks Spoil The Broth

VII. Spice Is Nice

VIII. Two hours at 500 degrees isn’t equal to four hours at 250 degrees

IX. Savor The Meal


If The Flavor Is Good, Let That Flavor Come Through

I remember when I was younger, I was trying to figure out what "cool" was: how I could be "cool", why some people were described as "cool". After a while, I finally got an answer I accepted. One person described "cool" as being yourself without worrying about what others might say.

Cool games are the ones that are considered classics, though I’m sure they weren’t accepted at first. Describe Tetris to someone unfamiliar with the game (…you move these twisted blocks around until they fill a line, but you can twist them and stuff and it’s really cool…) and you might get laughed at, even if it is one of the most popular video games of all time. That is the risk you must take to offer something great – the risk of failure and ridicule. The reward is a cool game with classic status.

My favorite video game of all time is Capcom’s Strider (Arcade 1989), a fast-action arcade game in which you play an acrobatic swordsman infiltrating Russia. It’s not deep, it carries as much plot as a Bruce Willis movie, and I’ve played the game literally over a thousand times since it first came out in the arcade (and I had it for Commodore 64 and Sega Genesis, too!)

Why is it so special to me? And more importantly, why the hell do I keep coming back to this day?

In the hundreds of games that I’ve played, I am yet to play a game as comfortable in its skin as Strider.

It is an action game. No pretense. No apologies.

In other words, Strider is cool.

Your game, if it is worth its salt, has a soul. It is your job to find and protect your game’s soul. Ask yourself: What makes this game fun? What does my game offer that no other game has? What experience do I want to emphasize and why?

It is often painful to take a risk and then self-criticize (and take criticism for) your work, and, as anyone who is familiar to my work can attest, sometimes I hit and sometimes I really miss. However, they can also attest that I will do something original, different, or strange – and if your game isn’t original, what are you doing it for?


Enjoy Experimenting – If It Goes Bad, Start Over

One of my best game design experiences was working on my first "big" title, which took me about four months to complete. It wasn’t that it was my first big title that made it great – it was the excitement over the concept.

The game featured a ball, passively bobbing on the sea, floating from one adventure to the next. I had never heard of anything like it, and I was proud that I came up with the idea on my own. During development, there was so much energy and so many ideas, all coming from this one simple concept.

As noted elsewhere, your liberty to utilize "alternative" ideas may be limited by your situation (your income, your team, etc.), but try not to cheat yourself out of the opportunity to try something different.

With the big boys, technology is the main differentiating factor. Generally, the company on the cutting edge, using the newest and best engine, wins the battle.

I’ve talked to some up-and-coming but unpublished developers like myself who said "We’re saving up money to license this engine and make a game around it…" That’s fine if that’s the plan, but I’m from the school of thought that believes ideas and game design make the game, not the engine.

As for the average small developer (financially and literally), you don’t have that luxury. You have to work really hard. You have to be noticed. You have to be original.

There is no other way to make your mark.

Remember, there was no Space Invaders before Space Invaders, and no Command and Conquer before Command and Conquer. Before they got popular, they were just "kooky" ideas…

Too Many Cooks Spoil The Broth

I visited a trade show featuring the newest arcade games about to hit the market. One game was really cool but, for the first time in a long time, I was actually intimidated by the game controls.

It had a joystick, a tracball (remember those?), three buttons and a keyboard – a full-scale keyboard. Now, it might have been still in its beta stage but still – isn’t that scary?

While run-of-the-mill games are, well, run-of-the-mill, there is also the danger of going too far, like putting a keyboard at the arcade. We all have a grand vision of what our game will be like, and how cool it will be. There are games that are so complex, so "real-world persistent", so "aerodynamically accurate", so "(put your favorite description here)", that game play gets lost in the shuffle.

We have all played games where it takes a fifteen-minute peruse of the manual, a call to the tip hotline, and fudging with the joystick to get the game character to walk across the screen. Is this really fun?

Try to filter your vision so that the player can understand. An artist whose work is misunderstood is considered complex. A game designer whose work is misunderstood is considered unqualified.

Steps VII – IX will be available at the next update.

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Date this article was posted to 9/7/1999
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

See Also:
Game Design

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